“The impulse had become irresistible. There was only one answer to the fury that tortured him. And so he committed his first act of murder. He had broken the most deep-rooted taboo, and found not guilt, not anxiety or fear, but freedom. Any humiliation which stood in his way could be swept aside by the simple act of annihilation: Murder.” —Tenebre (1982)
On this, the most wonderful of days, it only seems fitting to close out Gialloween with what is perhaps my favorite giallo and possibly my favorite film by director Dario Argento: his 1982 effort Tenebre. At this point, it’s one of the films I’ve seen the most number of times in my life—and I’m lucky enough to have seen it screened on 35MM on a few occasions over the years—but I still find the opening scene, many of the set pieces, and the final reveal to be particularly exhilarating. For much of the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was difficult to see the film uncut; it particularly suffered in the UK, where it was dubbed a Video Nasty, and in the US it was extensively cut and released as the almost insensible Unsane. While it is not nearly as mean-spirited as something like Fulci’s New York Ripper (1982), it is a far cry from Argento’s classic giallo films like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) or Deep Red (1975), where a deranged killer generally murders to get revenge for a past trauma and then to protect their identity from an accidental eye witness. In Tenebre, the murderer is trying to wipe out corruption from society—a miasma that can seemingly be found everywhere.
A popular American horror novelist, Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), travels to Italy to promote his latest book, Tenebre, about a tormented killer who murders those he views as being morally corrupt. Immediately upon Neal’s arrival, however, a psychopath begins murdering young women around Rome and stuffing their mouths full of the pages of Neal’s book. The police call on him for help—particularly lead inspector Detective Giermani (the glorious Guiliano Gemma)—and Neal, his agent (John Saxon aka the best human), and his assistants get caught up in an increasingly dangerous cat and mouse game with the killer.
After the supernatural efforts of Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), Tenebre marked Argento’s return to the giallo film. I was always confused by Tenebre’s title, as it seems to belong to the Latinized titles of the “Three Mothers” trilogy and holds the name of one of the three witches, Mater Tenebrarum. Meaning “darkness” in Latin, the film’s title is somewhat oxymoronic, as Tenebre is possibly Argento’s most brightly lit film with an emphasis on daytime shots in sunny Rome and plenty of florescent lighting in the exteriors. Argento has remarked that he intended Tenebre to have a sci-fi flavor to it and that it was supposed to take place several years in the future. While this doesn’t overtly come through in the finished product, the harsh lighting, extensive use of concrete, and almost complete lack of Rome’s ancient architecture does leave the film with a similarly cold, alienated feel as other works of urban terror like Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) or Zuławski’s Possession (1981).
Argento has also cited the influence of Italian crime films, poliziotteschi, which were wildly popular in the ‘70s and are one of the forerunners of modern TV crime drama. This seems far more plausible to me and Tenebre certainly has a fascination with methods of detection, mystery solving, crime, and police procedures. The wonderful Giulio Gemma’s Detective Giermani plays a more important role than the detectives in any of Argento’s previous films, such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat O’ Nine Tails, or Deep Red, where these characters are often bumbling at best and obstacles to justice at worst. The killer is also concerned with issues of morality and criminality and slaughters those that he believes have committed crimes, such as a thief and a lesbian couple.
There are also certainly some autobiographical elements at work. Though Peter Neal is an American—like most of Argento’s protagonists up to this point—and a novelist, he’s a horror writer who suffers from the criticism that his books are violent and misogynistic, a complaint also leveled against Argento. He also claimed that the film was inspired by his experiences with an obsessed fan, who called constantly and eventually admitted that he wanted to murder the director. And where Tenebre makes much of the divide between critic and artist, author and audience, Argento himself began as a critical writer and journalist before transitioning into script writing and, finally, direction. This divided nature, the tension between artist and critic, artist and fan, killer and victim, killer and sleuth, and professional and amateur detective, is at the heart of the Tenebre.
As with Argento’s earlier films, Tenebre is also obsessed by problems of vision, spectatorship, and voyeurism. The killer photographs his victims and the camera is at its most voyeuristic and unsettled here. Its ceaseless roaming is culminating in the film’s key tracking shot up and around a building and into a home where two women are about to be murdered. Like Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red, flashbacks and close-ups are of major importance, as are windows, mirrors, sculptures, and doubles. Also like Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red, a character is certain they’ve seen something of vital importance, but can’t quite put their finger on it. Peter Neal tries to ferret out this crucial clue, stating, “I’ve tried to figure it out, but I just have this hunch that something is missing, a tiny piece of the jigsaw. Somebody who should be dead is alive, or somebody who should be alive is already dead.” This investigation is in itself a red herring, and nothing is quite as it seems; Argento clever plays off of the twists and plot devices he used in previous films, resulting in a mix of fantastic set pieces mostly effective character development, and an absolutely dizzying conclusion.
This is also Argento’s most overtly sexual film at the time. It not only depicts the end of Peter’s relationship with his disturbed ex-wife, Jane (the gorgeous Veronica Lario, who perhaps incredibly became first lady of Italy)—who has secretly followed him to Rome—but there are numerous affairs, a one-night romance between Peter and his assistant, Anne (Daria Nicolodi at her most asexual), and a troubled relationship between two lesbians. In many ways,Tenebre is a culmination of all Argento’s sexual themes. Childhood and/or sexual trauma as the genesis for crime can be found as core plot points in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and Deep Red, while Tenebre shows eerie, effective flashbacks of the event: a beautiful woman (the unforgettable trans actress and model Eva Robins) sexually humiliating a teenage boy. Themes of transvestitism and gender politics are also found in films like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (a woman dresses as a man), Four Flies on Gray Velvet (the best character in the film is a flamboyantly gay detective) and Deep Red (where the two protagonists have several arguments about the roles of men and women and a sympathetic gay character is central to the plot). Tenebre’s Tilde (Mirella D’Angelo, also found in Tinto Brass’s Caligula) is the synthesis of several of Argento’s issues. Like many of the other female characters, including Peter’s assistant and the daughter of the hotel manager, she’s depicted as strong and independent. She is a close friend of Peter’s, but is also one of his harshest critics, taking him publicly to task for what she views as a deeply misogynistic novel with outdated mores.
To me, Tilde represents this fascinating tension within not only Argento’s career in general, but particularly within Tenebre. On one hand, Argento serves up horrifying yet beautifully stylized violence as a source of art and entertainment—within Neal’s novels, to the characters who are on some level having fun trying to solve the murders, and within the larger framework of the film itself—but on the other, he provides a quite cynical critique of our ability to be entertained by such garish violence. The kind of society that spawns such perversion is inherently corrupt and corrupting, which symbolically culminates in Argento’s final plot twist in Tenebre—which I will not ruin here suffice to say that it can be read as a bitter attack on giallo films themselves.